A Brief History Of New York City Subway Performers

Performers and musicians are as fundamental to the character of the New York City subway as train delays. And yet, the issue of subway and even street performances has been highly contested in the city for decades. In fact, in the 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia referred to these musicians as “beggars” and banned all street performance. But, according to Susie Tanenbaum of the The Street Performers Advocacy Project and City Lore, from as far back as the 1940s, rebels like folk singer Woody Guthrie would defiantly buck the rules and play music on city streets and subway tracks.


Photo by Florian Schneider on Unsplash

After 1970, street performance was legalized but subway performances remained illegal. As a result, several musicians who broke that law were summoned to court for supposedly posing a safety threat to riders. These musicians defended their performances as a first amendment right. In a critical decisions in 1985, the courts ruled that performers’ first amendment rights outweigh any “safety interest.” The issue heated up again in 1989, when the Transit Authority proposed a ban on music on subway platforms. Performers, lawyers and politicians all flocked to public hearings to oppose the ban. As a result, the Transit Authority banned amplified music on platforms, but allowed acoustic music. By 1990, a court declared the subway platform a place for “musical expression” and since then, the city’s train tracks have been a place where you can hear any kind of music, any time of day.

And if you’ve ever stopped in amazement at how wonderful a subway performer is, then you probably have experienced the joy spread by the MTA’s Music Under New York (MTA MUSIC, also known as MUNY) program. Beginning as a pilot program in 1985, MUNY, managed by the MTA’s Arts & Design unit, has managed offering more than 7,500 performances every year by over 350 soloists and groups at 30 prime locations in the transit system.

To join the elite ranks of MUNY, musicians must make it through a cutthroat competition process, impressing both a group of professional judges and everyday commuters to qualify. For instance, this past year, 309 applicants competed for just 25 spots. The resulting repertoire of underground subway musicians is incredibly varied from Cajun cellists to Latin guitarists to opera singers to Classical violinists. Many are professionally trained.

The system goes like this: MUNY musicians request certain performance locations. Every two weeks, they receive a schedule, or “permit” which offers them priority positions at some of the more popular train stops. (Areas like the Grand Central Terminal’s lower level and Penn Station’s Long Island Rail Road waiting area are reserved exclusively for MUNY performers.) MUNY members are allowed to sell CDS in commuter railroad terminals, but only there.


Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

What if you’re not selected to enter the ranks of the MUNY musicians? You can still legally perform on the subway. Acoustic music can be played on platforms, while acoustic or amplified music can be played on mezzanines. There are also a number of highly-specific requirements: musicians are not allowed to play during public service announcements and must be positioned at least 25 feet from a token booth. But beyond that, the sky’s the limit, and subway street performers continue to surprise and delight New Yorkers on their morning commutes.

Header photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash.



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